Film Reviews


Published August 4, 2023
The Chevalier de Saint-Georges - not one to hide his light under a periwig

Chevalier stretches the bounds of credibility from the very first scene. We are at a concert in Paris, in the late 18th century, where a cocksure Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is conducting his own music and playing the violin. When he invites requests from the audience, a black man in a periwig comes striding down the aisle and asks if he can play along. Mozart allows the stranger to step on stage, a violin duel ensues in which the composer is blown away by this dark virtuoso.

The violin duel is a coup de théâtre, but it is completely fanciful, based on a gig in which Jimi Hendrix was invited on stage and embarrassed Eric Clapton. It does, however, send a clear message: our hero, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is a rock star.

The problem with this entertaining first act is that is induces a high degree of scepticism for everything that follows. But if Stefani Robinson’s script takes gigantic liberties with Bologne’s life, the truth about this bastard son of a French plantation owner and a slave is even more remarkable. Bologne has long been known as “the black Mozart” – a title some now see as offensive, although most musicians would probably be happy with such a comparison. The American statesman, John Adams, wrote that Bologne was “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. rises to the occasion in the lead role, giving us a protagonist who uses his talent, charm and good looks as a way of overcoming the social obstacle of race. This Bologne is certain of his own value, proud of his achievements, and not a little arrogant.

Director, Stephen Williams, whose previous work has been almost exclusively for television, was spoiled for choice with Bologne’s accomplishments. One of the most celebrated violinists of his day, he was also a notable composer and conductor, a champion fencer, a ladies’ man, music tutor to Marie Antoinette, and eventually, leader of an all-black regiment in the Revolutionary army. The film omits the final phase, ending on the brink of the French Revolution, when Boulogne’s sympathies had turned decisively away from the court and towards le peuple.

Despite his many qualities, Bologne constantly found his career obstructed because of the colour of his skin. His connections wth the Queen were severed because it was believed they had gotten “too close”. His appointment to head the Paris Opera was stymied when three divas claimed they could not work under a mulatto. A lifelong quest for excellence in all things was Bologne’s way of combatting the prejudice he encountered at every turn. He had been made a chevalier – a knight – for his prowess in fencing and music, he mixed in the highest circles, but still struggled to defeat the invincible conviction that his skin colour made him somehow inferior.

Williams and Robinson have succumbed to the temptation to make this sumptuous bio-pic a study in racism and consciousness raising. To emphasise these aspects they have created speculative rationales for actual events, adding, subtracting and condensing, at will. This works well enough as storytelling but does no favours to the historical figures who are cast as villains. The singer, Madame Guimard (Minnie Driver) for instance, is imagined turning on Bologne because he rejects her sexual advances.

Mozart and Bologne were acquainted, and even had apartments in the same building for about six months. There’s no evidence of bad blood between them. So too, with Christoph Willibald Gluck, enemy of the fictional Joseph, but in reality, a friend. The film portrays Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) as a stiff, conservative composer who stands in the way of Bologne’s hot-blooded genius, but this is a calumny. Gluck was one of opera’s great innovators, who did much to modernise the artform. By 1856 we find that passionate romantic, Hector Berlioz, writing “there are two supreme gods in music, Beethoven and Gluck”.

Although there is currently a huge effort underway to unearth, perform and record Bologne’s music, it would take all the forces of militant wokeness to put him on the same plane as Gluck.

Bologne was rumoured to have had an affair with one Madame de Montalambert, and even to have fathered a child with her. In this film, Marie-Josephine de Montalambert (Aussie actress, Samara Weaving), is the great love of Bologne’s life, while her much older husband (Kiwi, Marton Csokas), is a stony villain devoted to military engineering, who has no time for art or music. The real Marquis de Montalambert not only built fortifications, he wrote poetry and stories.

Robineau’s painting of 1787-89 – a movie in itself!

One of the big sentimental moments of fictional Joseph’s life is his reunion with his mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) whom he hasn’t seen since early childhood. In fact, his mother lived with his father in Paris during the years their son was attending school. The movie makes Joseph’s father seem distant and cold-hearted, but he was exceptional for his time in not only recognising the illegitimate son of a slave but giving the boy the best possible French education.

The fictional Nanon has to make her appearance when Joseph is already a celebrated figure in order to steer him back to an awareness of his forgotten African heritage. This is the stagiest part of the film, a too-obvious platform for a contemporary political agenda. When we find mum arranging his hair in tight little braids, we know he’s got the message.

If you can overcome the politics, the rewriting of history and the melodrama – and here you may be more successful than me – Chevalier is a highly watchable film. No matter how much fantasy is inserted into the story of Bologne’s life, his very existence is a cause for wonder.

It seems that never a week goes by without some forgotten black/female/queer artist being rediscovered, but Bologne is a figure who deserves all the attention he can get – which makes it puzzling that there is one episode in his life the filmmakers seem to have missed. It’s recorded in a painting by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau in the British Royal Collection, that shows the Chevalier de Saint-Georges fencing with the famous cross-dresser the Chevalier d’Eon, in full frock. In the current climate it would surely be an award-winning gambit to restage this historic contest between race and gender.




Directed by Stephen Williams

Written by Stefani Robinson

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekoluejo, Alex Fitzalan, Marton Csokas, Minnie Driver, Sian Clifford, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jim High

USA, MA 15+, 108 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 August, 2023